This Is What Makes You Gullible, No Matter Your Age, Study Finds

Researchers found that your tendency to believe false information may have an underlying reason.

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The saying "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" may not be all that accurate after all. In fact, research has found that people may not be entirely to blame for their false beliefs—especially if it's something they've heard over and over again. Simply put, there's science behind what makes you gullible. According to a new study, people—no matter their age—tend to be more gullible when they hear a statement repeated more than once. Read on to find out why, and for misinformation you might believe, check out these Well-Known "Facts" That Are Actually Just Common Myths.

The recent study, conducted by researchers from Vanderbilt University and published on Aug. 28 in the journal Psychological Science, found that repetition can affect anyone's ability to weed out misinformation.

"When we rely on our initial gut feelings to determine truth, we often use unreliable cues such as repetition," lead researcher Lisa K. Fazio, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt, said in a statement. "It's important to instead slow down and think about how we know a statement is true or false. This is especially important on social media where news feeds have been designed to encourage quick reads and quick responses."

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Researchers studied around 20 to 30 individuals in three age categories: 5-year-olds, 10-year-olds, and adults. They took 16 statements categorized into four sets—new truths, new falsehoods, repeated truths, and repeated falsehoods—and included them in a learning session led by a digital robot who talked about animals and nature. The participants were made aware that some of the statements said by the robot would be true, and others would not be.

All three of the age groups more often judged statements that were repeated as true, even if they were not. And the researchers also found that the participants' prior knowledge did not protect them from believing misinformation that had been repeated by the robot.

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"Our results suggest that children learn the connection between repetition and truth at a young age. In general, statements that you hear multiple times are more likely to be true than something you are hearing for the first time," Fazio said. "Even by the age of 5, children are using that knowledge to use repetition as a cue when making truth judgments."

The habit of believing false information to be true simply because it's been repeated to you multiple times is known as the illusory truth effect. This concept was first observed in 1977, when three researchers studied college students and determined that repetition had a stronghold on beliefs.

Fazio's study found that this concept affects all age groups, and is picked up at a young age. She said learning the ability to connect repetition with truth at a young age is "useful most of the time, but it can cause problems when the repeated statements are false."

Unfortunately, with false information running rampant on social media, it may often be more harmful than helpful. A 2018 study published in Science found that false stories reach around 1,500 people six times faster than true stories do. And on Twitter, misinformation is 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than real stories—adding to their constant circulation. That means people are likely to come across fake stories multiple times, leading them to believe they are true. And for more falsehoods to ditch, this is The Single Biggest Lie You Need to Stop Telling Yourself.

Kali Coleman
Kali is an assistant editor at Best Life. Read more
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